Royal Opera 2018-19 Review: Andrea Chénier

Platanias’s Anti-Hero Rises Above Alagna’s Andrea Chénier In Effulgent Production

By Sophia Lambton

An opera in which death is the finite indulgence, Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” is the antithesis of its verismo siblings – glorifying suicidal sacrifice rather than sketching it in lachrymose laments of mourning and self-pity. With its tenacious celebration of strength in the face of unvanquishable, ruthless adversity, it rivals “Tristan and Isolde” in its heroes’ unabashed, iron will to die; echoing the revolutionary sentiment that leaving life is little more than a biotic process in the face of great ideals.

Elegantly structured and effulgent, David McVicar’s 2015 production positions the tale in the much-needed luxury of its setting, exposing the covetousness of the battled bourgeois with palatial walls of dusty pearl and white bricks, sparkling gilded furniture, and a wide host of chandeliers and candelabras. While certain facets are too basic – such as a charred French flag that rains down during intervals bearing a Robespierre quote – “Platon même a banni les poètes de sa République (“Even Plato banished the poets from his Republic”)” – costumes are well color-coordinated in their lavender and ruby splendor; golden lighting dims periodically with the growth of the characters’ plight.

A work lavishly aburst with soaring strings and looping melodies of triumph, it is too easy for singers to get carried away in expressive immersion – and founder.

Getting Carried Away

Roberto Alagna’s titular Andrea Chénier – the ill-fated poet who manages first to be an enemy of the aristocracy then of the people – is aplomb with brazen, loud notes in forte regardless of a scene’s particular demands. While his panache is often impressive in a well-sustained, potent and at times pugnacious middle register, as a result the introspective contemplation of the artist is in large part absent. Rapid and insecure along some of “Un di all’azzurro spazio,” certain sections of the tenor’s instrument exude rushed, skimpy notes occasionally overladen with vibrato as a compensation for the vocal strain. When he sings of his unbridled patriotism – how “the earth itself kissed his forehead (“Su dalla terra a la mia fronte veniva una carezza viva, un bacio”)” he doesn’t sound as noble as he does declamatory.

This characteristic extends to Alagna’s interpretation in the tenderer parts; as Chénier recalls a “destiny that calls itself love (“E questo mio destino si chiama amore”),” he at first overamplifies the volume then extinguishes the sound in its diminuendo to transform it into airy affectation. Confronting death in “Sì, fui soldato,” certain high notes are palpably strained. The ending of “Ma lasciami l’onor! (“But leave me my honour!”)” is boldly sung but seems alyrical.

A Stark Contrast

His nemesis-turned-savior Carlo Gérard is in contrast a visceral incarnation of doubt, denial, bitter nostalgia and, lastly, repentance. Dmitri Platanias transforms the villainous but ultimately redeemable personage into a benign Scarpia: convincing us in earnest of the love that he has felt since time began for Sondra Radvanovsky’s Maddalena di Coigny. Though Platanias begins his role with a tempo a little too wayward against the backdrop of the not entirely parallel orchestra, by the time he is advising Chénier in a menacing yet afeard voice “Proteggi Maddalena (“Protect Maddalena”),” we can hear in the deliberate emotional swagger of his vocalization a mixture of pride, rigid stubbornness and arrogance that closely guards the blunt, disruptive wound of love.

Platanias’s execution of “Nemico della patria” – an aria of wrestling inner demons as he wonders how he could have at first been the victim of lords, then of lasciviousness – is ridden with gradual crescendi of mounting aggravation dueling with incremental, lamenting diminuendi: he is as brusquely violent in the declaration “Uccido e tremo” (“I kill and I tremble”) as he is remorseful in the reluctant admission: “e mentre uccido io piango” (“and as I kill I weep”).

As Gérard eventually confesses love to Maddalena, reminiscing about how he would open and shut doors to spy on her practicing a minuet, there is malleability throughout the somewhat tarnished timbre of his baritone voice that stealthily unearths the character’s fraught vulnerability.

Complex & Unique

Radvanovsky’s vocal depiction of Maddalena di Coigny is more pliant; at times exhibiting too extensive a panoply of characters for her single, albeit morphing heroine. Equipped with a gentle and facile staccato technique across coloratura-like notes, the soprano’s higher register can at times become strained or be bordered too thickly with a conspicuous, shaky vibrato. In her admission of desolation to Chénier during the Reign of Terror, certain words such as “possente (“powerful”)” are lost to vocal strain in their perhaps overwrought sentimentality. That said, there is a solacing sweetness to the diminuendo in her reticent confessions of “Son sola (“I am alone”).” By the time she has evolved into a defiant, irrefutable woman in the third act, she confronts Gérard with her willful surrender – “Se della vita sua tu fai prezzo il mio corpo, ebbene, prendimi (“If your price in exchange for Chénier’s life is my body – then take me”)” with grisly, fierce notes in the chest voice.

The soprano’s assumption of the beloved “La mamma morta” is an unexpected and interesting one. Radvanovsky takes the tempo more slowly than usual, creating a belabored effect which, while exuding the excruciating pain that Maddalena faced watching her mother being murdered, also forges the illusion that the worldly ingénue is somewhat weary; older than her age. It takes the young girl a long time to remember the realization of love that compelled her to live again. However, by the time she reaches the start of the aria’s pinnacle with Love’s declaration “I am oblivion (“Io son l’obblio”),” Radvanovsky expels a vigorous F-sharp of boundless dominion.

Strong Pillars & Wobbly Ones

In the role of Bersi Christine Rice’s mezzo-soprano offers the pillar vocally that Maddalena cites in words throughout her monologue: a well-sustained instrument that travels the course from high to low and soft to loud easily.

Rosalind Plowright’s Contessa di Coigny is expectedly capricious, performing with a body language full of airs and feigned grace one anticipates from a French lady of her station.

The opera is not sabotaged under the temperate baton of Daniel Oren’s conducting; it is likewise not spared. While Oren layers the orchestration with its prerequisite sways of rubato, abrupt changes in dynamics and pace and slick lyrical elegance, instruments in their sections do occasionally stick out like loose wicker from its lattice basket frame. Though this is not insulting to the ears in faster, louder passages that mask subtle discrepancies, in the finale of Maddalena and the poet’s own Italian “Liebestod” – the duet “Vicino a te” – the chords ring with distinctive clutter: a blunt contrast to the dying characters’ steely resolve.

Suggesting the glamorization of self-sacrifice and ideological zeniths which lay the foundation of this undermined opera, the production falls prey to defects in both its intermittent vocal struggles and orchestral flaws. And yet the cataclysmic disarray of the unsparing Revolution at its core renders these faults a little more excusable.


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